Food for anxiety

Although everyone worries from time to time because of children, parents, problems at work, money and many other things, anxiety syndrome, anxiety is prolonged obsessive experiences or fears about certain objects and situations that have no obvious cause.

The largest observational study of the population of Norway, Europe and the USA showed that 20-25% of people suffer from some form of anxiety throughout their lives. More than 10% experience anxiety constantly. Its most common forms are specific phobias (fear is associated with certain situations or objects) and social phobia (fear of being surrounded by people in principle or in certain situations). More serious manifestations of anxiety are less common. About 5% of people face post-traumatic stress disorder once. About 4% are susceptible to generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by anxiety, worries about the future and anxiety. 2.3% have panic disorder, and 1% have obsessive-compulsive syndrome.

At the same time, anxiety and depression are related, and many suffering from anxiety, sooner or later meet with depression. And even more so, generalized anxiety disorder is associated with depression.

More and more scientific literature shows that training improves the condition of anxiety syndrome. Some studies have found that with regular workouts, along with physical changes, psychological stress decreases, and this effect is noticeable both with short-term and long-term workouts. At the same time, cardio workouts are investigated more often than strength training, but it seems that both types alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. Interestingly, women are usually more susceptible to reducing anxiety through exercise. The best option will be those workouts that bring pleasure and which a person can adhere to (and progress). As for strength training, the most effective were medium-intensity workouts (50-70% of the single-repeat maximum), with a rest of about 90 seconds between sets. Perhaps sometimes it is worth increasing the intensity, but it is better to start with a moderate load.

Why training helps is not completely clear. Probably, a high heart rate, high adrenaline levels and rapid breathing can mimic the symptoms that occur during anxiety attacks. Thus, a person undergoes a controlled stress reaction and trains it, becoming more resistant to it in everyday life.

Several studies have found that regular exercise contributes to the suppression of the sympathetic nervous system and improves the function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. As the name suggests, this system consists of parts of the hypothalamus and pituitary brain and is connected to the adrenal glands — glands that produce stress hormones. This system plays a key role in adapting to physical and mental stress. The disturbed regulation of this system has long been considered one of the possible causes of symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In people with increased anxiety, the function of the exchange of monoamine neurotransmitters is impaired. This means that the synthesis of serotonin, norepinephrine and adrenaline is not maintained at the correct level. Animal studies show that regular physical activity increases the production of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, which has the same effect as antidepressants (although in any case, it is worth consulting a psychotherapist first).


Depression (generalized depressive disorder) is a common and serious disease that has a bad effect on thoughts, well-being and actions. “Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or loss of interest in things that used to bring joy. This can lead to various emotional and physical problems, inadequate functioning at work and at home. Symptoms of depression vary from mild to severe and may include feelings of longing, loss of interest and pleasure, changes in appetite, insomnia or too long sleep, lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, deterioration of cognitive functions, difficulties with concentration and decision-making, thoughts of death or suicide.”

One of the studies was conducted to find out whether running and strength training have the same effect on the symptoms of depression. Forty women with depression trained four times a week for two months, using jogging and strength training. The level of depression was assessed after 1, 7 and 12 months. As a result, there was no fundamental difference between the two forms of physical activity, and the symptoms of depression decreased both there and there.

Another study also compared cardio and strength training and gave similar results. Another study showed that physical activity itself reduces depression, and in another study, running was recognized as equal to psychotherapy in effectiveness.

Physical education has both instant and long-lasting effects. According to the most popular hypothesis, exercise stimulates the action of neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

A meta-analysis on the topic of physical activity and depression found that:

  • physical education had an average or pronounced effect on depression in comparison with the absence of any intervention;
  • pronounced and moderate effect compared to conventional treatment;
  • in addition to antidepressants, there is a moderate effect, which is statistically significant.

Conclusion of the meta-analysis: physical activity is an effective way to combat depression both by itself and in combination with other methods of treatment. However, the effectiveness of training tends to decrease over time, which is still difficult to explain. A good approach to reduce the symptoms of depression and reduce the likelihood of relapse is a combination of different forms of treatment.

One study found that sprinting reduces the symptoms of acute depression (18), although it is difficult to imagine that someone would want to run fast in such a state. Another recent study showed that strength training significantly reduces the symptoms of depression in adults, regardless of the level of health, amount of training and strength abilities.

Nutrition for anxiety and depression

There are only a few studies on this topic. It is known that a calorie deficit gives both positive and negative results – this is probably an individual moment. For example, if you eat a lot of “food garbage” and are overweight, changing your diet to a healthier one and losing weight will benefit from recurring episodes of both moderate and acute depression.

Some supplements may also be effective. For example, the indisputable effectiveness of S-adenosyl methionine, methylfolate, omega-3 and vitamin D has been proven. Independent studies have shown that creatine, folic acid, vitamin C, tryptophan can also help, as well as zinc and magnesium. Thus, 248 mg of magnesium daily reduced the symptoms of depression and anxiety, regardless of age, gender, stage of depression and the use of antidepressants. The effect was observed for two weeks with mild to moderate depression in adults. Magnesium acts quickly and is well tolerated, does not require constant monitoring of the level of toxicity and increases the effectiveness of conventional antidepressants. It can be a valuable addition to the standard treatment of depression, although differences in bioavailability between organic and inorganic forms should be taken into account. In any case, you should start with a doctor’s consultation.

About diet and depression

Calorie restriction can exacerbate depression in susceptible people. Interestingly, this effect is more common in women than men (and women in general are more susceptible to depression). At the same time, a calorie-deficient diet with too few carbohydrates and too much protein can be even worse in this sense.

That’s how it happens. From amino acids, which proteins break down into during digestion, the body makes various substances — for example, neurotransmitters and hormones. So, it makes the hormone dopamine from the amino acid tyrosine, and serotonin from tryptophan. Amino acids need special carrier molecules for assimilation, but some amino acids use the same carrier, so they can compete with each other for “transport”. For example, the amino acids BCAA, tyrosine and tryptophan use a common carrier, which means that the levels of some amino acids can affect the levels of others and how many of these or other amino acids get into a certain tissue in the body, including the brain.

For example, if there is a lot of amino acid tryptophan in the blood relative to another one using the same carrier, more tryptophan will enter the brain, and more serotonin will be made from it. And if there is less tryptophan than other amino acids using the same carrier, less tryptophan will get into the brain, and less serotonin will be produced.

This leads to one potential problem of high-protein diets for those suffering from depression: most dietary proteins do not contain as much tryptophan as other amino acids. One of the exceptions is the serum derivative alpha-lactalbumin, which has the highest tryptophan content among other dietary proteins (5 g per 100 g versus 2 grams in most proteins). Recent studies have shown that consumption of this protein can increase the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids in the bloodstream, increasing serotonin synthesis.

Carbohydrates also play a role. It is known that diets high in carbohydrates and low in protein (less than 5% of total calories) increase the level of tryptophan and, as a result, serotonin (this is probably the reason why some people on a high-carb diet become sleepy). This may explain why some depressed people experience cravings for high-carb foods during the period of exacerbation of depression.: the body tries to “treat” itself by raising the level of serotonin.

Why do carbohydrates increase tryptophan and why can their decrease cause problems? The fact is that some amino acids (especially branched chain BCAA amino acids, competitors of tryptophan for “transport”) are absorbed with the participation of insulin and are sensitive to it. When insulin rises, the level of BCAA in the blood decreases. If there are fewer competitors of tryptophan in the blood for the carrier, more of it can enter the brain and increase serotonin levels.

When carbohydrates decrease, insulin levels decrease, and tryptophan may not have enough carrier molecules. The situation for depressed people worsens when, in addition to a low-carb diet, the amount of protein in the food increases and the number of calories decreases.

What to do about it? From the point of view of weight loss, reducing protein is not the best strategy, because diets with a lot of protein have a number of advantages in terms of fat loss.

  1. Get part of the protein in your diet from alpha-lactalbumin. It has a higher level of tryptophan and will help maintain serotonin synthesis. Consumed at night, it can help with falling asleep. Consumed during the day— – with a general mood. In this context, a more carbohydrate and less protein dinner can also help with falling asleep.
  2. Consider (ideally, together with your doctor) the possibility of taking 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan). It is a precursor to serotonin, which is sometimes used to relieve depression and sleep problems. There is no single recommended dosage, but 50-100 mg taken up to three times a day can be a starting point.
  3. If symptoms appear only after 2-3 months of calorie restriction, it is strongly recommended to take a full two-week break from the diet every ~2 months. At this time, it is worth raising calories to maintain the current weight due to carbohydrates, this will help restore serotonin levels to normal. Then you can spend another phase of an active diet, stopping until the depression begins to manifest itself again.
Food for anxiety

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